Last week saw the murder and imprisonment, respectively, of two dissidents on opposite sides of the line that is becoming increasingly reified in current discourse, that between "Islam" and "the West." The first was Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and outspoken critic of the war in Chechnya, shot dead in her apartment over the weekend. The second was Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemeini Boroujerdi, who was arrested in Tehran on Sunday for his opposition to clerical rule in Iran.
Ms. Politkovskaya's reporting revealed that the treatment the Putin regime dealt the Chechen people rose to and surpassed the level of cruelty visited upon the Kurds by Saddam Hussein. The fact that Saddam Hussein sits in jail while Vladimir Putin remains at the helm of one of the G8 can hardly create any other impression except that crimes against Muslims will be held to account only if they are committed by other Muslims. The only redemption for "the West" on this score was provided by the outspoken courage of Ms. Politkovskaya herself, in that Saddam Hussein let no one of her ilk survive in his Iraq. Now she has paid for that courage with her life, and the thin thread by which any conceivable moral superiority of "the West" hung in this instance has snapped.
Ayatollah Boroujerdi provides a counter-example of the crimes of "Islam," but one that confounds the usual parameters within which that boogeyman is perceived. Here is an oppressed critic of the rightly decried Tehran regime, but rather than being an apostle of "modern rationalism" or "enlightened secularism" he speaks from the heart of Islam itself. Though Boroujerdi has not yet paid the ultimate price for his stance and his clerical rank perhaps affords him a degree of protection Ms. Politkovskaya did not enjoy, still his criticism took a similar kind of courage. His reasons for opposing clerical rule are no doubt complex, but the fact that they are rooted more in Koran and Hadith than in Locke and Rousseau does not make them any less principled.
What then, may we learn from Politkovskaya and Borourjerdi? Whatever else may be true of "Islam" and "the West" they are alike in the capacity to oppress or destroy those who take a principled stand against values that have strong institutional roots. Pope Benedict XVI's recent call for a "great dialogue of cultures" rooted in rationalism and tolerance was no doubt a message for the age. It will only serve a constructive purpose, however, if all people of conscience understand that no culture exercises a monopoly on intolerance or irrationality; these are universal human potentials that find expression wherever abstract principles or naked self-interest are put before the sanctity of human life. In this light, "the West" and "Islam" are best abandoned as categories that lack any real utility in a genuinely productive "great dialogue of cultures."